Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Telling Life: Living the dream?

Several years before I leapt into self-employment but was dreaming about it often, a friend looked at me quite seriously and said, "Don't do it. Don't decide that what you love is what's going to support you."

I thought he was nuts. How could being a professional, full-time storyteller be anything but a magnificent, rose-scented life? How could it not be a romantic adventure? I can hear some of you laughing now, those of you who know already. The rest of you who don't have already gathered that it's not what I thought it would be. This isn't to say I would choose to do anything else. I find the benefits outweigh the challenges and I love my work, I love seeing what happens when I tell, write, coach and consult. But it's much harder than I ever imagined and my current boss can be very difficult. Let me stress, I know I am deeply privileged to do this work. I am privileged to live in a time and place where I can support myself as an artist. It's just not quite what I expected before I leapt.

Let's take a look at some of what I assumed and what really is. This is, of course, my list and experience. I'd love to hear about yours!
  • Although I would have denied this with everything in my soul, I secretly believed my natural talent meant all I had to do was make myself available and I would soon be flooded with more work at better pay than I could ever actually do. In reality it doesn't matter how talented I or anyone else is. Being self-employed means that most of the work is looking for work, for the next gig, and that has an element of drudgery. I am still learning how to do the tasks I don't like. It's even harder to do them when I am the only one impacted by it. It can be much easier to work when there are others who depend on me.
  • I assumed I would be able to set my own schedule. Sure, I sleep later more often than many of my friends with day jobs, but my work hours are often longer (see below) and less predictable. What's more, I sometimes have to ask clients to wait on scheduling me while I wait for confirmation from other clients and so on. It can get pretty complex. It's not a reliable 9-5 kind of life.
  • I assumed I would have a life where work was play and play was work, that I would never feel bogged down by the work of my heart. Ha! Yes, I love my work (more on that below) but I miss time off. A break. But I have discovered that - 
  • I never, ever stop working. I work on weekends, I work at night. I go out and I always, always, ALWAYS have business cards and a spiel ready. Because if I don't work, I don't eat. I don't have the luxury of paid vacation, so I try to make sure that everything I do has some component of work to it. I just took five days off and, for the first time in years, didn't make the trip a work trip. It was great but there was ongoing low-level anxiety the whole time. I still checked email. I still made phone calls. This blog post is work. I do very little that doesn't get measured as a possible paid-work creating activity.
  • I forgot that artists (really everyone) need community; I assumed I would work in my cloister and thrive in isolation. As it is, I need to work to find connection with others; I have friends who help me with accountability, getting things done, brainstorming and more. Those relationships need care and feeding; they are vital to my work.
  • I assumed creativity would flow like sap in the spring without the distractions of a day job. It does sometimes. Other times I am utterly, totally dry. And it can be pretty scary knowing that my livelihood is dependent solely on me, my creativity and my drive.
These are just some of the things I didn't anticipate, or at least didn't anticipate to the degree they exist. Being a self-employed person is hard. There are many parts I would rather not do, but if I don't do them then I don't get to do the parts that I love. And that's what this post is really about.

Dreams don't come true because your fairy godmother waves her wand and decrees that thou shalt be an effortlessly successful artist. Overnight sensations are usually years of hard work and then breakthroughs based on that work. 

I am learning to value the hard parts of being self-employed because they give me the freedom to practice the parts I really, truly love. I am learning to treasure those other working artists and self-employed friends who help me get things done. I am learning to celebrate the small victories (yay! I wrote a blog post) as well as the big ones (yay! so-and-so booked me!). I don't think I will ever stop learning how to ask for help, how to manage the drudgery, and finding new ways to feed myself creatively. It is all worth it though sometimes I think I should throw in the towel and get a day job again.

Were I to do that, however, I would need to redefine myself. My work gives me definition and form that is worth fighting for.

I am a storyteller and performing artist who creates and performs works that entertain and move my audiences. 
I am a writer who helps people see themselves and their world with more clarity and meaning.
I am a communications consultant who get things done and creates meaningful change in organizations around the world. 
I am a coach who helps my clients create the lives and work they want, so they can dream bigger and go farther.

In all of that, I am a dreamer. I am living the dream. It's just a helluva lot more work than I anticipated. It is the sweet and the bitter, the boring and the burning. I know how lucky I am and I am grateful every day. There are parts that are more wonderful than I ever could have imagined. I am so lucky.

And if you're thinking of taking the leap? I won't tell you not to. Go ahead! Just don't forget that the dishes still need to get done, the bills have to be paid, and romance is as much about hard work as it is about passion.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License


  1. Hi, Laura. I hope you like this (illustrated) poem from Bukowski. Always makes me smile. You are not alone.

  2. "Being self-employed means that most of the work is looking for work, for the next gig, and that has an element of drudgery." So true, Laura! In fact, your entire piece resonates with me, having done this for 20+ years now. Thought you might get a kick out of a recent piece I wrote along very similar lines:


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